There were no winners in Kim Hill’s interview with Don Brash this morning. Not Kim, and not Don, not Guyon Espiner’s unflinching use of te reo on Morning Report, and certainly not the people of Aotearoa. PÄkehÄ liberals wanted the bloodsport spectacle of their champion vanquishing the doddering spectre of our reactionary past, and PÄkehÄ right-wingers craved the sweet outrage of Hill’s rudeness and dismissive scorn towards people like them. MÄori people mostly were just dismayed at Brash getting a platform to debate the value of their existence, again. Everyone except for MÄori got what they wanted, but nobody got anything more.
In a way, this morning was a last gasp of credence for the notion that debate is possible with people who are oblivious to evidence. Kim got in her zingers, ably skewering Brash’s incoherence and inconsistency, but there’s nothing new there. All the evidence was as incidental as it was anecdotal. We were treated to discourses on the population density of MÄori in proximity to kindergartens, based on nothing at all. Concerns about the use of te reo on RNZ cannibalising the audience of MÄori language radio and TV stations, without any reference to what those flaxroots practitioners of te reo want. And discourses about actual cannibalism and the stone-age pre-settlement society, where listeners were asked to accept the claim that the deliverance of the MÄori from their horrid existence was worth any price, up to and including their cultural erasure. Nobody who has given even modest consideration to these topics could have learned anything or changed their views this morning.
The discussion mocked the very rationality it sought to demonstrate, because it was all about feelings: Brash’s feelings of alienation from his country and his time, and Hill’s need to defend her employer and her worldview. Centred around PÄkehÄ feelings, with no regard given to what MÄori felt, or for their agency, it was merely the latest in two hundred years of discussions about MÄori, without MÄori.
It was a question of evidence that brought the interview to an end, though. Brash finally went one small step too far, with the claim that the MÄori are not the indigenous people of Aotearoa, but merely its second-most-recent invaders. This notion has been debunked for almost a hundred years, since Skinner’s work on the Moriori in the 1920s, and there was enough scholarship done on it through the 20th Century that reliance on these claims in the 21st is a straightforward flag that whatever is going on here, it’s not an evidence-based discussion. There was nowhere left for Kim Hill to go. Nobody can debunk arguments advanced with such disregard for reality.
So she shut it down. But better than shutting it down would have been not entertaining it in the first place — which is, by and large, what MÄori seem to have wanted. The error of this interview was not merely giving Brash a platform, but its objectification of MÄori, the idea that their right to existence on their own terms was a matter for debate. It was an exercise in discursive theatre, a ritual sacrifice performed to appease the savage gods of fair-minded middlebrow liberalism, in the hope that rational discourse will deliver us into salvation. The sacrificers — yes, Kim Hill was one of them — were PÄkehÄ, and inevitably, the sacrificees were MÄori.
I was in the crowd for this sacrifice. Loath as I am to continue focusing on PÄkehÄ feelings, I have to say: my only remaining feeling is the horror of being responsible for all this. Not only for today’s sacrifice, but the small sliver of the past that is my contribution to what got us here. We PÄkehÄ need to take care of our own embarrassments, it should not fall to MÄori to do that. So we need to stop treating the right to MÄori existence on their own terms as conditional on our goodwill, and start treating it as a fact of life. Which, in the letter and spirit of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, is what it is. It’s not hard to do. When people want to debate the legitimacy of te reo MÄori in public, here’s a simple response: “Like the right of MÄori people’s physical existence, the right of MÄori people to cultural existence is not a matter for debate.” We have, in polite society at least, stopped talking about “maoris”. We have stopped mocking haka, waiata, and karakia, and even people like Brash have stopped mocking te reo, making honest attempts at decent pronunciation and using what kupu they know in ordinary speech. We can stop treating the existence of MÄori as debatable, too, and it’s about time we did.